The gurney in the Texas death house in Huntsville, Texas.

The gurney in the Texas death house in Huntsville, Texas. Credit: AP, 2008

The debate was emotional and included citations that ranged from the Bible to constituent email. And by the time it was over, Nebraska had become the first conservative state to abolish the death penalty in 40 years.

The repeal on Wednesday underscores the work of a diverse coalition, including Republican lawmakers who believe capital punishment is inefficient, wrong or both. And the win in Nebraska for death penalty opponents comes just before the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the use of a lethal injection drug that led to botched executions, and as several states scramble to get the chemicals.

Nebraska -- the first with a majority GOP legislature to ban the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973 -- may have tipped the scale. It joined New York and 17 other states that have banned the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court revived the practice in 1976. Since then, Americans have debated capital punishment, grappling with its flaws while trying to fix it. New York determined 10 years ago that the death penalty could not be fixed and that it was time to let it go.

New York's action marked a turning point in America's move from the death penalty, just as Illinois had marked a turning point five years earlier and Nebraska marked a turning point this week.

The campaign to eliminate capital punishment came into sharp view in 2000, when Illinois became the first state to impose a moratorium on executions to fix the system. America wasn't ready to give up on the death penalty then, but concerns about wrongful convictions were growing. Illinois' moratorium helped put those concerns into policy, and a number of states set up studies or reformed their systems.

However, New York's decision to abandon the death penalty changed the conversation -- from how to fix capital punishment, as Illinois had asked, to whether it should be fixed at all. In New York, the courts had sent the death penalty back to the State Legislature to fix a flaw in the process. After five public hearings, featuring more than 170 witnesses, the Assembly decided not to change the defect and let the death penalty die.

Several states went through a similar process after New York State. New Jersey decided to suspend executions and conduct a study, and it repealed the death penalty in 2007. Illinois' moratorium lasted 10 years before lawmakers repealed capital punishment in 2011. Maryland studied the death penalty twice, passed the nation's most restrictive death penalty reforms in 2009, and four years later repealed it.

The last execution in Nebraska was in 1997. Lawmakers there held on to the death penalty for another 18 years, changing execution methods and trying to get executions back on track. But the more they looked at the system, they found a risk of executing innocent people, a lengthy process that harmed victims' families, and high costs for no return.

Nebraska isn't the first red state to reconsider the death penalty. In the last few years, Republicans have sponsored repeal legislation in GOP-controlled chambers in Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming. In 2010, Kansas' Senate came within one vote of repeal. This year, Montana's House of Representatives also came within one vote.

The momentum sparked by New York's Democratic Assembly 10 years ago cultivated a wave against the death penalty. Nebraska's decision marks the a new wave of repeal because the process has now become bipartisan.

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